Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office tapped into a taxpayer-funded expense account to pay for a political event at the governor’s mansion in October, prompting her reelection campaign to quietly reimburse the state two months later.
Documents obtained under a public records request show New Mexicans for Michelle, the governor’s campaign committee, issued the state a $1,837 check in December to pay for expenses stemming from a Democratic Governors Association party hosted by Lujan Grisham in Santa Fe.
At the time, Lujan Grisham was serving as chairwoman of the association, a Washington, D.C.-based political organization dedicated to electing Democratic governors and other candidates.
The reimbursement appeared in the governor’s campaign finance reports as a “campaign event.”
“The campaign transparently and expeditiously reimbursed the state for an event hosted by the Governor as chair of the Democratic Governors Association,” campaign spokeswoman Kendall Witmer said in a statement Wednesday.
Witmer did not provide any other comment or information about the event, and the Democratic Governors Association did not return messages seeking comment.
While the campaign reimbursed the state for purchases related to the event, “the contingency fund does allow for use [of the expense account] to host dignitaries and other guests from any political party,” Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote in an email.
Expenses reimbursed by the campaign include an $890 purchase from Colorado Party Rentals for 100 12-inch ivory-gold chargers, 100 10-inch ivory-gold dinner plates and stainless steel forks, knives and teaspoons.
Lujan Grisham’s contingency fund spending has been a source of controversy in the past, and it’s given the governor’s critics, particularly Republicans hoping to win back control of the Governor’s Office in November, ammunition to use against her as she runs for a second term.
A review of expenditures last year found spending on alcohol, dry cleaning and thousands of dollars worth of groceries for the governor’s mansion, including Wagyu beef, a purchase that has generated stinging criticism against Lujan Grisham.
Complaints about the governor’s spending initiated a “risk review” by the State Auditor’s Office, which found the contingency fund has broad parameters.
“Statutory authority remains ambiguous without definitions [within the law] concerning what constitutes ‘expenses directly connected with obligations of the elected office of governor,’ which could be broadly interpreted, or what could be considered ‘perquisites or allowances for state employees,’ ” according to a report the office issued last year.
“As a result, the New Mexico state Legislature may wish to review the matter and consider whether further statutory clarification is necessary with respect to the fund,” the report stated.
Since the controversy with Lujan Grisham erupted, The New Mexican has been requesting invoices and receipts related to the contingency fund on a regular basis. On April 21, the newspaper made another request for invoices, receipts and expense reports from September to April.
The New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration called the public records request “excessively broad and burdensome” and said it needed additional time to gather the documents, first on May 4 and then again May 6. The department fulfilled the request Friday.
The latest batch of receipts and invoices since September turned up at least eight purchases of alcohol, including liquor, wine and beer.
“The expenses are directly connected with obligations and requirements of the elected office of governor — exactly what the contingency fund is intended to be used for,” Hayden wrote.
Hayden did not respond to numerous questions about the contingency fund spending, including whether the purchase of alcohol is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.
“I noticed you refer to ‘the governor’s contingency fund,’ ” Hayden wrote. “I just want to make sure you are aware that this fund has been available and utilized by many past governors and is budgeted by the state legislature. Governor Lujan Grisham is the first governor to disclose detailed information about the use of the fund to taxpayers and continues to use it in a fiscally responsible manner.”
According to Hayden, less than 19 percent of the total budgeted contingency fund for the year has been spent, leaving around $78,000 unspent.
“During the [administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican], for the six-month period from July 1 to December 31, 2017, we estimate that average monthly contingency spending was around $5,000 a month, based on records (as there were no reporting requirements at that time). For comparison, the spending you are inquiring about averages to around $2,200 a month,” Hayden wrote.
The fund created headaches for Martinez, too.
Martinez tapped into the fund to pay for what turned out to be a raucous holiday party at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa. The party drew calls to police following reports of bottles being thrown from a balcony — an incident some say may have ended Martinez’s hopes for national office.
At a little over $5,200, spending for the month of September was the highest for Lujan Grisham in the most recent review of invoices and receipts.
Included in the September spending was a $1,551 invoice from Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe.
The invoice showed an Aug. 30 delivery to the governor’s mansion of “mesquite smoked BBQ beef brisket” and other dishes for 45 guests.
“This was an evening gathering that honored state employees for their service during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hayden wrote.
The event isn’t listed in the governor’s official schedule, which is posted online.